Feline Leukemia Virus Frequently Spills Over from Domestic Cats to North American Pumas

J Virol. 2022 Dec 14;96(23):e0120122. doi: 10.1128/jvi.01201-22. Epub 2022 Nov 14.


Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a gammaretrovirus with horizontally transmitted and endogenous forms. Domestic cats are the primary reservoir species, but FeLV outbreaks in endangered Florida panthers and Iberian lynxes have resulted in mortalities. To assess prevalence and interspecific/intraspecific transmission, we conducted an extensive survey and phylogenetic analysis of FeLV infection in free-ranging pumas (n = 641) and bobcats (n = 212) and shelter domestic cats (n = 304). Samples were collected from coincident habitats across the United States between 1985 and 2018. FeLV infection was detected in 3.12% of the puma samples, 0.47% of the bobcat samples, and 6.25% of the domestic cat samples analyzed. Puma prevalence varied by location, with Florida having the highest rate of infection. FeLV env sequences revealed variation among isolates, and we identified two distinct clades. Both progressive and regressive infections were identified in cats and pumas. Based on the time and location of sampling and phylogenetic analysis, we inferred 3 spillover events between domestic cats and pumas; 3 puma-to-puma transmissions in Florida were inferred. An additional 14 infections in pumas likely represented spillover events following contact with reservoir host domestic cat populations. Our data provide evidence that FeLV transmission from domestic cats to pumas occurs widely across the United States, and puma-to-puma transmission may occur in genetically and geographically constrained populations. IMPORTANCE Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a retrovirus that primarily affects domestic cats. Close interactions with domestic cats, including predation, can lead to the interspecific transmission of the virus to pumas, bobcats, or other feline species. Some infected individuals develop progressive infections, which are associated with clinical signs of disease and can result in mortality. Therefore, outbreaks of FeLV in wildlife, including the North American puma and the endangered Florida panther, are of high conservation concern. This work provides a greater understanding of the dynamics of the transmission of FeLV between domestic cats and wild felids and presents evidence of multiple spillover events and infections in all sampled populations. These findings highlight the concern for pathogen spillover from domestic animals to wildlife but also identify an opportunity to understand viral evolution following cross-species transmissions more broadly.

Keywords: Florida panther; Puma concolor; feline leukemia virus; infectious disease; interspecific disease transmission; phylogenetic analysis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Wild / virology
  • Cats* / virology
  • Leukemia Virus, Feline* / isolation & purification
  • Leukemia, Feline* / epidemiology
  • Lynx / virology
  • Phylogeny
  • Puma* / virology
  • United States

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.9cnp5hqn4